Calling for these All-Star backups
OK. Now for the rest of the debate.
The fans have spoken, and, well, so what if they only got half of the starters right? If you'd rather see Vince Carter, Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady line up for the opening jump at Staples -- instead of Ron Artest, Baron Davis and Michael Redd -- it's your game. If you'd rather see Yao Ming and Steve Francis starting for the West over Shaquille O'Neal and Sam Cassell, I understand. You love the players you love, and no further explanation is needed ... although some of us Professor Highbrows still feel that a ballot should be punched responsibly.
Let's proceed to the real source of contention. On Tuesday, the seven East and West reserves will be announced. We'll pick ESPN.com's reserves following the same guidelines that the coaches get from the league office. That's two forwards, two guards, one center and two wild cards in each conference.
TWO FORWARDS: Peja Stojakovic and Andrei Kirilenko.
Stein's justification: Peja should be starting, and there couldn't possibly be any debate about that. Alas, he's a forward in the box score and on the All-Star ballot, which put him in the same race with Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. So the Kings' first-half MVP candidate will have to settle for reserve duty. As for the second forward, Kirilenko wins out in a perennially deep field that got even deeper this season with the emergence of AK-47, Zach Randolph, Brad Miller and Carmelo Anthony. Kirilenko, though, stands out as a coach's dream, as an impact player at both ends. Just like Karl Malone, he's playing power forward in Utah like no one else has ever played it ... except that the slender Russian is doing it in a totally different manner than Mailman. And if you need further justification: Utah has to have an All-Star for shocking the world with its ability to stay competitive sans Malone and John Stockton. Who else but Mr. Mohawk, who sealed his selection with us by ditching the Mohawk.
Stein's justification: Cassell's career-long quest to finally reach the All-Star Game, after 11 seasons, has received so much media attention that there's no way the coaches pass the Minnesota Mouth over this time. Picking that second guard in the West is the toughie, because the natural choice (Seattle's Ray Allen) missed too many games. Our choice: Bibby, who edges out Dallas' Steve Nash and the Lakers' Gary Payton. The Kings should definitely have two All-Stars, given their 32-12 start without Chris Webber, and Bibby deserves to be Peja's sidekick. That's because Bibby has received zero fanfare for doing exactly what he vowed to do, improving in several categories after a so-so season in 2002-03 that started with a foot injury and never really kicked in.
CENTER: Shaquille O'Neal.
Stein's justification: Unlike the East, there are actually a few viable contenders here. Miller has lived up to his $68 million price tag in Sacramento. Golden State's Erick Dampier, meanwhile, has quietly become a regular double-double customer, much like your humble correspondent. You could legitimately pick either one, but that would mean ignoring a slimmed-down Shaq, which we just won't do. O'Neal has indeed missed 33 percent of the Lakers' 42 games through injury, but we're not going to forget how dominant L.A. was early, rolling to that 18-3 start. Besides, what kind of All-Star Game would it be in L.A. if Shaq wasn't there to be the host?
Stein's justification: For a while it looked like Dallas wouldn't have an All-Star, but the Mavericks' recent surge -- coinciding with Nowitzki's recent surge -- makes Dirk the most deserving representative. 'Melo's selection might be tougher to justify, but, as stated here many times, team success is huge with us and the Nuggets have been a huge success. Personal aside: I think it would be a bit unfair if LeBron James makes the East roster, as I fully expect, and 'Melo is stuck playing in the Rookie Game. So hopefully the coaches will go for 'Melo, too.
THE LEADING SNUBEES: Memphis is another Surprise Team That Deserves An All-Star. Trouble is, the Grizzlies do it with depth more than any one standout performer, so I'm afraid Pau Gasol is a Snubee. Same goes for Randolph (great numbers, but his team has been mostly dismal) and two quality Clippers -- Elton Brand and Corey Maggette.
TWO FORWARDS: Ron Artest and Kenyon Martin.
Stein's justification: Artest, aside from that one run-in with Rick Carlisle, has been a fine citizen in Indiana. More importantly, he is no less responsible for Indiana's ongoing leadership of the East than Jermaine O'Neal. Hopefully Artest -- that rare stopper who can score as well -- will be healthy enough to participate. New Jersey's Martin, meanwhile, is the other sure bet. The Nets' season has been soaked in turmoil, but don't ignore that Martin has answered critics by averaging nearly 10 rebounds per game, in response to longstanding charges that he doesn't do enough board work to go with his good defense.
Stein's justification: These guys were picked as East starters in this cyberspace Wednesday, so this shouldn't be a great surprise. Davis has slumped since November, and he definitely does shoot too many 3s, but his fatigue is understandable after carrying New Orleans for three months without Jamal Mashburn. I've slobbered over Redd for weeks -- and you don't know how much we hate most things red -- so by now you knew he'd be here. And if I'm not mistaken, our favorite lefty bomber recently served up a couple 40s for the doubters.
CENTER: Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Stein's justification: This position causes countless problems in the East because, truth be told, there is no second center who belongs on the All-Star team. And because the league insists that coaches have to pick a legitimate center as a backup, that will force East coaches to choose between Jason Kidd, Paul Pierce and LeBron for two spots ... unless you can convince the league that Pierce is a forward. How strict is the league? I know one coach, one year, who submitted Duncan as a center in the West. The league kicked back the ballot, saying Duncan had to be a forward no matter how much time he spends in the low post. So ... where does that leave us in the Least? In trouble, that's where. Cleveland's Ilgauskas and New Orleans' Jamaal Magloire are the next-best East centers behind Ben Wallace, so one of them is inevitably headed for L.A. Ilgauskas must be Lithuanian for "by default."
Stein's justification: Yikes. As stated above, being forced to take Ilgauskas or Magloire means we have to choose two from the following trio: Kidd, Pierce and James. Although the whole Byron Scott saga played out so offensively, Pierce's recent slide clinches it here. We're going with Kidd and The Kid, and it really came down to Kidd vs. Pierce. There is no way we were leaving LeBron off the All-Star team, with the way he has handled all the never-before-seen challenges of his first half-season and given how Cleveland is actually starting to mount a bit of a playoff challenge. Sorry, Rookie Game: I look forward to seeing LeBron on 'Melo on the big stage.
THE LEADING SNUBEES: Pierce obviously tops the list, but Miami's Lamar Odom is another swingman we wanted to make room for, since Odom is threatening to average a double-double after his $60-plus million contract was widely questioned. Atlanta's Shareef Abdur-Rahim has the numbers to qualify, but numbers ain't enough. Toronto's Donyell Marshall and Cleveland's Carlos Boozer also made us look, but it's laughable to suggest three All-Stars from the Cavs ... and Ilgauskas has to be included. If Artest can't play, look for Pierce to get that spot.